A block away from my house, Reina killed herself. Three days before graduation. It felt like I didn’t know her well enough to cry during class like some of the other kids. But I was sad, too.
The next day, we have to go to a special assembly instead of homeroom. Our teachers herd us into the football stands and won’t tell us anything.
“Last night,” Principal Hendrikson starts. He coughs into the microphone. Señora Cohen passes him a water bottle. We wait while he opens it.
“Last night,” he tries again, “there was an accident. I’m very sorry to say that Reina Cruz has passed away.”
Some drama kids in the row in front of me huddle with their arms laced around each other.
“We don’t know many details about what happened, except that it occurred at the intersection of Charleston and Alma.”
Everyone starts whispering.
“Charleston and Alma,” Sophie mutters next to me. “You know what that is?”
I know what it is.
“That’s where the railroad is. The tracks are right there,” she explains.
“If you need support during this time, counselors will be available. Just let your teacher know or come by my office to make an appointment,” Hendrikson finishes. He looks limp up there on the podium. Last year a kid died in a drunk driving accident. And the year before, a sophomore was killed in a drive-by shooting. He should be used to this.
A bunch of kids are crying now. They’re holding each other and rubbing each other’s backs. I turn to Sophie so we can roll our eyes together at this, but she’s sobbing, too. She looks at me with big red eyes and her mouth looks like a dirty rubber band. She leans in to me and I put my arm around her. In front of us, the drama girls are still twisted together. Two are crying loudly and a few are weeping. This is for them; they knew Reina best. It’s not for Sophie and me, who haven’t really talked to Reina since fifth grade. That’s when she came back from the summer conservatory at the children’s theater and told us she had made new friends.
The bell rings.
“Go ahead to your classes, everyone,” Vice Principal Dayley says into the mic. “Go on.”
People leave the gym wailing. I shrug Sophie off my shoulder and get up. Our next period is art history. It seems unimportant now, both because Reina is dead and because we’re graduating the day after tomorrow. Mr. Stevens understands, he says, so he’s going to put on a movie. He lets us pick between Airbud and The Goonies. We choose the one with the dog. When Mr. Stevens takes roll he skips Reina’s name. He looks like he’s going to cry.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Stevens asked me where I was going in the fall.
“Cal,” I said.
“I went there, too. Class of ‘77. Go Bears!”
I think I looked at him funny because the smile fell off his face like a soggy tissue. In that moment, I hated him for assuming we were the same. And I hate him now for thinking he’s one of us.
I tell Mario to switch seats with me so I can sit next to Sophie. She’s sobbing into her sweatshirt sleeves again.
“Do you want to go to the bathroom?” I whisper to her. Mr. Stevens turns the light off and the movie starts. “I’ll go with you.”
We walk out of the classroom and Mr. Stevens doesn’t stop us. Sophie washes her face in the sink. Her mascara is gone completely. I lean against the wall and watch her in the mirror. Her orange hair looks stupidly bright against the pale blue tiles. I have spent so many hours tracing the grout grooves between them with my eyes instead of hurrying back to class. They go up to the ceiling.
She looks at me in the mirror. “How come you’re not upset?” she says.
I lick my lips. They’re cracked and hurting. “I am upset. I just don’t want to cry right now.”
“It’s not about wanting to cry. You just do it. It comes out of you and you can’t stop it.”
“You can if you roll your eyes up like this.” I show her. I almost cry then, when she stares at me.
“Don’t be stupid.” She goes back to patting the redness out of her face in the mirror. “She was our friend and now she’s dead and we all have to pretend like graduation is this big thing that matters. It’s a fucking scam.”
“Yeah. Hella dumb.”
The next two hours are pretty much the same. People are upset. Teachers try to talk to us with shaky voices. My head hurts by third period.
I spoke to Reina last week, I tell Sophie. Reina and I were the last ones in the locker rooms after PE and I asked what she was doing that weekend and she said nothing much. Then she grabbed her backpack and left.
We are sitting in Sophie’s car with In-N-Out in our laps. I always make Sophie drive during lunch because her Range Rover makes me feel tall when we speed down the expressway. Like we’re five feet closer to the sky hurtling over the hill.
“She was a bit of a weirdo,” Sophie says thoughtfully as she pulls Diet Coke through her straw. “Oh, shit, I shouldn’t say that, right?”
“I mean she was. Remember when she asked to borrow your pencil and then pretended like she never did? Who does that?”
“Don’t. We shouldn’t.” Sophie stares out of the windshield. There are four guys from our class in the empty parking spot in front of us. One of them is smoking a cigarette and the others are messing with a hacky sack. They keep dropping it. She’s watching them. I can see the tears rolling in her eyes.
“I was just remembering.” She’s still staring at the boys. “Reina.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Okay,” I say and settle back into my fries. I marble the ketchup and mustard together to eat them properly. One of the boys outside is looking into our car. Sophie bends forward and rests her head against the steering wheel. I pat her back.
When the bell goes off, we take our time walking back across to the Math and English building. We know everything is forgivable today. Out front some freshmen are crying together. It wasn’t like this when Shaina Rothschild totaled her car on Cowper. I saw like maybe two kids cry then.
As we file into our classrooms at the end of the day, Hendrikson comes over the intercom and reminds us there are still counseling appointments available. School ends in two days; who has the time?
The email the school sends beats me home, so my parents have a list of therapists printed out and waiting for me at the dinner table. My mom says she’s sorry, that she remembers Reina from when we were kids, wheeling around the neighborhood together, and hugs me. My dad stays silent but asks if I know how her parents are doing. No, I say. I’m fine, I say.
Because the train is so close to the house, I feel it coming before I hear it. The floor has a heartbeat and it hits my stomach. Then the horns go off and the wheels run past. When this happens, the wind that comes off the tracks snags the trees in our backyard a little. The faster it goes, the harder they whoosh back into place after. I always hope it doesn’t grab the cherry plum tree when it goes past. I love that tree even though the berries crush themselves in the grass and it brings flies to our yard.
That night, I listen to the train for a while. Commuters cross back and forth in the dark. I struggle to push Reina from my thoughts when the train sounds off now. I feel like she’s inside me. What would it have been like to slip under the safety gate and walk on the gravel next to the track? I can hear it when I close my eyes, crunching under my feet. The train tracks in the dark are dull, but copper where the warning lights hit it. I bet she squared her shoulders when she heard the train. Like, stood upright and faced it. Or maybe she turned her back to it because the hit would make her airborne for a second. The train screams down the rails.
The next day, during homeroom, Sophie says her stepmom Janet cooked her a whole sea bass for dinner because Sophie once told her it was her favorite. Janet wanted her to cry, Sophie says, so she could hug her. The stepmom is new. Sophie’s dad married her last summer. It doesn’t seem so bad but I don’t tell Sophie that. I just ask if we can take photos at her house. It’s big and beautiful and there’s a view of the mountains from her driveway.
We end up taking photos in our living room. My mom is crying and my dad is telling me to give my graduation cap to my sister to wear. I definitely thought graduation would be a bigger deal, but it’s still just me and Sophie sitting next to each other in the bleachers while we wait for our names to be called. They set up a big black and white photo of Reina on the stage and framed her face with white roses.
“We have to walk in front of her?” I ask Sophie. “Seems weird. And rude.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” she says.
Mylene and Ahmad sit on my other side. I always liked Ahmad. I used to think we might date or at least kiss, but it never happened. He sees me looking at him and nods at me. I nod back and smile. Then it feels gross and I frown instead.
I stop listening when Hendrikson starts talking about our class and how we miss Reina.
Reina lived in my neighborhood. It took me exactly seven minutes to walk from my house to hers, around the looping drive of Monroe and past the local park. I liked going to her house because her mom always cut us apples and served them with milk. Sometimes I wouldn’t even come home after school until my mom called on Reina’s house phone. Sophie would bike over, too, and the three of us would sit on Reina’s green and yellow hammock and throw acorns at the squirrels.
It hurt when she told us she didn’t want to be our friend anymore. We said mean things about her afterward, but it was clear by freshman year we’d never get her back. So we pretended like we didn’t know her.
I imagine her face smashing into the shining silver face of the train, the metal scraping her skin off her skull.
There’s a photo framed in the living room of me shaking Hendrikson’s hand while I wave my diploma in my other one, but I don’t remember crossing the stage.
The summer melts in fast. Pretty soon, we have all this extra time to fuck around. A few of us get internships. We hear Cyrus Farjad is doing a lab thing at Stanford that his dad got him. Sophie and I think it’s stupid. Things like that don’t count anymore now that we got into college. She and I sit around a lot, me watching my sister, and she avoiding Janet, who works from home. We usually sit in my backyard, though I would prefer her poolside. The grass had burned to a straw-yellow now.
“How do you think it felt when she died?” I ask one of those days, when we can hear the train coming in the distance. I’m feeling reckless, I’ll be honest. It’s been weeks since we talked about Reina.
“When who died?” She doesn’t look at me.
“I don’t know. Why would I know that?” Her answer comes out quickly.
“Haven’t you ever thought about it?”
“You’re always asking fucking stupid questions.”
She isn’t crying so I don’t stop. “Like, I imagine that she walked down the tracks. Like down the center of the rails. Do you think she was scared?”
Sophie stands up. She grabs her sweatshirt and I can tell she was debating throwing it at me or putting it on to leave.
“You’re a dumbass, you know?” she says, finally chucking the sweatshirt at me so it almost knocks my sunglasses off. “Who thinks about that?”
Then she sits back down.
“You have no imagination, Sophie. It was just a question.” I almost want to apologize. “Whatever, I guess I just think about it a lot,” I say.
“Once is too much for me.”
We go quiet. Then she wants to know if we’re going to smoke in the park tonight. She always brings the weed so it’s really up to her, but I tell her yes.
That weekend another kid kills themselves on the tracks by downtown. Reina ended up having a lot of copycats that summer. We never get much info though—it’s always so-and-so “passed away last night on the corner of Alma and” some street or other, and we know what that means.
School officials followed every new story with an email. They promised better mental health services when kids came back for the next school year. The newspaper in the city next to us published a piece detailing all the deaths. Sophie doesn’t want to look at it, but I find it online and read it. All the kids’ bodies were found next to the tracks. Like they flew out of their train seats and landed in the dirt. The reporter interviewed some conductors who said they never saw the kids since it was dark or that they saw them and hit their horn but were going too fast to stop. One kid kills himself that summer by swallowing a lot of his parents’ pills, but the police don’t think that’s connected.
About halfway through July, shrines appear by the train tracks. When I walk to the park to meet Sophie, I can see Reina’s up close. Someone wired plastic bouquets on the chain-link fence which separates the train from the road. There’s also a pictures of her propped up against the fence. It’s pretty eerie walking back at night when the candles light up like little stars under the traffic lights.
I lose my virginity in a hurry this summer to get it out of the way before college. It happens at a kickback at Mylene’s house. I go because Sophie said Ahmad might be there and then, I think, I can give it up to him. But he doesn’t turn up. Instead it’s like ten of us in Mylene’s den shotgunning beers and trying not to make a mess on her mom’s white carpet.
Everyone is talking about college in the fall and their majors. We rag on Tommy Lin for picking comp sci, like some kind of Bay Area Asian stereotype. Then someone brings up Reina and the other kids. Some East Coast magazine had found the story and called it “The Summer of Suicides.”
“My dad showed it to me,” Mylene says. “I read it but it didn’t make sense to me. It said Reina and Eric and Cassy were doing it because of social pressure. It said we all have overbearing parents and all these tech companies next to us. But, I don’t know, it’s not that. Or it’s not just that, you know?”
We nod. We know. Mylene stares at her hands in her lap.
“I don’t know. It could be the answer,” Tommy says. “My parents are hardasses. Sometimes I think about ending it all.”
He laughs and then chugs his beer. I snort because some of it dribbles down his shirt. Sophie stares at me.
“I keep thinking about Reina,” Sophie says. Her voice is soft. “What those last moments must have been like for her.”
I stare at her. Those are my words coming out of her mouth.
“Scared. Confused. Sad. Who the fuck knows, Sophie?” I say. Sophie’s eyes get big. She mouths something to me but I don’t care.
“I don’t think anyone could have known,” Amalia says looking between us. “She got into Yale! No waitlist, nothing! She was about to live the dream. She must have been so unhappy to throw that away. It’s so sad. I feel so bad for her.”
Sophie reaches her arm around Amalia’s shoulders. They bend together and then they’re both crying. Mylene gets up to get them tissues.
I try not to roll my eyes in an obvious way. I want to throw something across the room. Mylene’s mom’s crystal vase is right by my hand. I could chuck it at the TV and break them both. I look around at people. Leah raises her eyebrow at me.
“We knew she was depressed but we all thought she had a few more months in her, at least,” Leah says. I forgot she was in drama with Reina.
Tommy and Mylene laugh. A short, angry little noise. I look at Sophie who’s frowning.
“Yeah. I kinda wish she died earlier so I coulda written about her in my personal statement,” I say fast.
Sophie looks away, but Mylene giggles into her beer.
The night slips away from me after that. I had too many beers too quickly. I slump on the couch and play with Elliot Gellibrand’s hair while his head rests in my lap. I don’t look at Sophie, even when he puts my hand in his and leads me upstairs.
While he crawls all over me in the queen bed, I leave my body and I’m Reina again. Then I’m Eric. I also try Cassy out. She’s the one whose left arm was found across the tracks from her body. They’re all flavors of Reina. Different angles on the same line. I piece them together, picking up all the details I remember and making up some new ones. The train changes shape, too. At first it’s the boring silver commuter train I see all the time, with the sporty ribbons painted on the side. But it transforms into a steam train, charging down the tracks. Its horn sounds like screaming. I close my eyes and focus on how the muscles pull apart, the sinews stretching till they snap. I slow it down and repeat it over and over until Elliot gets up.
Afterwards, he lights a cigarette for me. So, I knock out two things from my list in one night.
In August, the grass is gone and the trees begin to shrivel like burnt matches. It’s been at least three weeks since the last kid killed herself. Everything was settling in for fall. It would all be over so soon.
In a week, Sophie and I would be heading off to opposite parts of the state and I’d only see her during the holidays. Tonight we’re going to smoke the rest of her stash, she said. She doesn’t want to take it with her because there’s better shit in LA.
I was still putting Reina on almost every night. I think about her walking on the tracks, ducking under the safety gate, and stepping on the wooden planks between the rails. It’s like counting sheep to keep adding details like a single car’s headlights skating along the fence line. Or crows hanging out on the street lamps above, shaking the shadows down on her. And every time I walk past the tracks to get to the park, I’d stop and look around, saving up more for later.
Sophie has been teasing our last smoke for weeks. She thinks it will be poetic, and I’ve mostly been just nodding along because I’m still irritated about what she said at Mylene’s. But it’s easy to be mad right now. That’s probably why she’s been making such a big deal about it. She texted me earlier like “dont forget tree tnite”.
I end up at the walnut tree before Sophie. Ten minutes later she shows up with a blanket.
“It’s cold,” she says, a little breathless from jogging across the field to me.
“The better to smoke with,” I say.
She rolls her eyes at me. “Don’t say that shit when you go to school. Everyone’s gonna know you don’t know how to pack a bowl.”
“That’s what boys are for,” I tell her.
I lay back on the wool blanket. It scratches my cheek a little. The sky really looks like a bowl above us. Like we’re just the bugs caught underneath or something. I ask Sophie if she’s ever thought about it like that.
“You always say that, dude. You’re baked,” she says, giggling.
I wait for her to get comfy. She’s sighing by my shoulder.
“Remember at Mylene’s, when you said you think about how Reina died?”
“No,” she says. Her voice sounds like it’s coming from ten feet away even though she’s right next to me.
“You said, ‘I think about what Reina’s last moments were like.’ I remember.”
“I don’t know, it just seems to me like I said that first and then you said it at the party.”
I pull the drawstrings on my hood so only my eyes are showing. The stars are spiraling now. I get up suddenly and pick up the corners of Sophie’s blanket. She stares at me as she rolls off.
“What?” she asks.
I say nothing and fold the blanket up and stick it in her tote back which I throw over my arm. My feet are quiet in the grass as I walk to the park entrance. It’s all damp from sprinkler water. I let Sophie catch up.
“I want to show you something by the tracks,” I tell her.
It’s only three blocks from here and we walk there in silence. I don’t usually enjoy my walks home in the dark. I try to get Sophie to drop me off on her bike or in her car, but sometimes she walks to my place and then we have to walk back together. It’s like the darkness makes it hard to talk. Or maybe we’re both straining hard to listen for anything weird. She’s walking really close next to me tonight. Her arm keeps brushing mine.
It might be midnight or later, and the tracks look dead quiet. The wind is blowing through the trees and there are cars far away, but when I stare at the tracks everything gets silent.
We hug the chain-link fence where the light falls, like we’re moths who can’t stand the dark. I almost trip over Reina’s novena candles and land on top of one the roses someone left for her. It crunches under my foot, destroyed. I throw the tote bag down by the road.
“Okay, what?” Sophie is impatient but her voice shakes a little.
I point to the tracks.
“Go,” I say.
“Walk out there. I’ll come with you.”
“Is this some Stand By Me-type shit? Wanna see a dead body?” she laughs.
I can feel her smirking at her own joke. She thinks this is a game.
“Come on,” I say, ducking under the safety gate. It’s different from my daydreams. Even though it’s the middle of the night I get this feeling like someone is going to come screaming from around the corner to tell me how stupid it is. I want them to. But I keep going and limbo past. The wood plank hobbles on its nails under me. I look over at Sophie and start walking. Pretty soon I hear the gravel crunch behind me.
I keep walking, putting my feet on each wooden plank, making sure to stay short of the rails. I read about the third rail in class but I don’t know if that’s just for subways or not. I go maybe one hundred feet down before I realize Sophie has stopped. I turn around.
“The way I imagine it,” I tell her. My breath makes a tiny cloud next to my face, “is Reina and those other kids walked down early in the morning when the trains pick up again. They went under the gate like we did and they walked until they were halfway between the intersections. I bet they thought about turning around.”
Sophie is looking back at the direction we came in. I can feel her tensing. She wants to run.
“Or maybe they didn’t and they just kept walking until a train came right at them and it was too late to turn around. Then it was over. Real quick. Just horns going off, train coming, and they’re done. You can’t outrun a train going a hundred miles an hour. I mean you can try, but it probably doesn’t work.”
She’s edging away from me now.
“Or maybe they tripped. It could happen. They thought they’d throw themselves in front of a train, then they changed their mind when it was coming, but their feet got caught like this—” I show her by sticking the tip of my shoe under the plank. “And they fell and then there’s no use running.”
Sophie jumps off the tracks, leaping over the rail, and landing in the dirt. She runs back to the safety gate. I can’t see her in forty feet.
“Or maybe they welcomed it and held their arms out—” I stick my arms out. “Like this. And it was like flying.”
The dawn is coming in. Light is bleeding at the edges of the sky. In the far distance I can see the pinprick of a headlight coming down the tracks.
I take the crushed rose with me before I walk home alone.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s wish to communicate what it’s like to live with suicidal ideation to those who don’t experience it, which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.